A 16-year-old girl was cleared yesterday in juvenile court of the most serious charges in connection with the beating of a teacher that was captured on a cell phone camera and drew national attention to violence in Baltimore schools, a case that turned on testimony that the teacher might have provoked the fight.
Circuit Judge Paul A. Smith said he was "appalled" by the conduct of the student and of the art teacher, Jolita Berry. He said evidence presented by prosecutors and defense attorneys came out "evenly balanced," leading to an acquittal for the student on criminal assault charges and a related charge of school violence.
A charge of disrupting school activities was sustained - the juvenile equivalent of a guilty verdict - and sentencing was postponed until next month.
The April 4 incident at Reginald F. Lewis High School received widespread attention on the Internet and on national television.
Berry testified that she was sucker-punched by a female student and was beaten as other students cheered.
But defense attorneys presented witnesses, including the school's then-principal, who said that Berry had acknowledged pushing the girl after she "got in her space." Students said Berry was cursing at the girl and egging her on. Defense attorney Susan Green said the resulting altercation was "chaos" and that it was impossible to know who was at fault.
"She put her hands on that child first - she had no right," Green said. When the brawl started, Berry was "in there fighting just as hard" as the student, Green said.
Prosecutors said they were relieved that the disorderly conduct charge was sustained. The student, whom The Baltimore Sun is not identifying because she is a minor, is likely to receive probation because she has no prior juvenile record or other disciplinary infractions at school.
"The court recognized the underlying principle here: the importance of maintaining order, respect and discipline in the classroom," Assistant State's Attorney Pam Chung said in a statement. "With the type of disorderly conduct demonstrated in this case, education suffers."
But the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union called the judge's decision "terrible."
"It sends the wrong message to our students. Now they will feel they can get away with just about anything in the classroom," said union President Marietta English.
Berry, who did not appear in the courtroom yesterday, declined to comment.
Defense attorneys sought to cast Berry as a poor teacher who did not have control over her classroom. A special education aide testified that Berry often argued with students and derided them as being from the ghetto.
Prosecutor Dawn Jones said the case represented a "total disregard and disrespect for authority." She noted that Berry had suffered the brunt of the injuries and recalled testimony from an assistant principal that the teen might have lunged at the teacher after being pulled away.
"Let us not forget that we're talking about a beating of a Baltimore public school teacher," Jones said, calling the defense version of events a "smoke screen."
In rendering a decision, Smith, who presided over a murder sentencing earlier in the day, appeared to have been swayed by the testimony of Lewis' then-principal, Jean Ragin, and that of a school counselor who said Berry told them that she had pushed the girl first. He said that sustaining the assault charges would mean dismissing their testimony, which he said he could not do.
"If I could decide on the basis of how appalled I am, I would do so," he said. "I could talk about disrespect of authority, but that's not a crime."
Baltimore Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.